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What is a wiki?
A wiki embodies these properties: organic, open and observable.
Organic allows concepts to be easily:
- externally or internally linked
- adapted, i.e. expanded, shrunk and reformulated/rewritten.
- readers moving from passive consumers to knowledge producers
- new technology (OpenSource, open APIs, Open XML based data exchange architecture, etc.)
As with any term, this definition is open to debate and dissention. Please do take advantage of the openness of this wiki by commenting below, or diving in and fixing mistakes!
Anything important can be edited by anyone in TheAudience.
This covers both "simple access" and "simple editing". Firstly, if you can see the wiki, and are in its audience, you are technically able to edit anything important (simple access). Secondly, if you are in the audience and technically able to edit the wiki, the level of technical sophistication required to actually do so must not exceed your technical aptitude (simple editing).
Many interesting topics, both old and new, stem from this requirement.
- Traditionally, wikis have been edited in simple text forms; thus, it was important to create markup languages that are both powerful enough to do anything important, and simple enough that the less technically-minded members of the audience could quickly pick up the skills. More recently, as wikis have multiplied and diversified, there has been a push towards a so-called "WikiMarkupStandard", lowering the technical bar to the audience through use of standardization.
- Wikis can be edited by many people simultaneously. Occasionally, this leads to EditConflicts, which must be solved by the wiki because the audience cannot be assumed to have the required technical savvy.
- The desire to allow TheAudience to edit anything must be tempered by the realization that not everyone editing your site will be in TheAudience, nor will they be sufficiently savvy from day one to necessarily manage the unavoidably-complex parts of the site. One canonical example is WikiSpam: link-spam posted by "malicious" editors attempting to promote extra-community interests. Another is avoiding community LandMines. In an attempt to defuse potential conflicts, sites may rely on a GodKing to control "less important" parts of the site, or attempt to DevolvePower without fully opening the site's workings to non-trusted audience members, such as by allowing admins to lock pages.
- An interesting, if old, development in openness was the invention of the CategoriesAndTopics system. By adopting an existing tool, BackLinks, TheAudience is empowered to organize the wiki with a simple tagging system.
- As TheAudience for wikis grows to include the proverbial grandmother, the allowed complexity of editing must shrink correspondingly. An active area of development in wikis is the adoption of visual tools for editing pages, rather than the more technical markup languages.
Many sites using a WikiEngine restrict editing privileges to a predefined community: they are not truly open. With the recent surge in spamming activity on wikis in general, maintaining a useful site can strongly conflict with the open policy if the existing community is not sufficient to combat malicious activity. In these cases, severely restricting the editing community — but not the reading community — may be the only viable solution.
This raises an important question: is this still a wiki? This is not a resolved issue by any means. A strong case can be made that it is not a wiki from the perspective of the locked-out readership — it is merely a website. Then again, from the perspective of the restricted editing community, it is a wiki. It may still be relatively easy to join the limited community, further strengthening the claim that the site is still open, merely with a high barrier to initial entry. Reflecting this disagreement, we call such an ambiguous case a closed wiki (AKA half-open, FishBowled). Note that this is not the same as a private wiki, which is fully-open but has a very restricted readership.
Concepts can be easily named, described and linked into the site
A wiki is fundamentally organized around concepts. These can include the people in the community, the basic terms used on the site, the ideas and patterns explored by the community, and the groupings used to organize the site. One term for this approach is a PatternLanguage; however, some do not like the term "pattern" here, as it is often used in a more technical sense. Each concept corresponds with some canonical name.
A wiki must be able to grow and shrink dynamically; if the word "organic" is not evoking the image of a dynamic process in your mind, concentrate harder. We're not talking about produce here. The wiki should also map onto the way the brain learns and stores information: through heavily-interlinked concepts, with some small handle (i.e. a name) pulling out a large chunk of information.
Again, many interesting topics arise from this idea.
- Many names may naturally arise for the same concept; how do we get all these names pointing to a single page? A typical approach is to use PageRedirection.
- Do constraints on the valid names used for concepts restrict, or improve, naming conventions? For instance, on MeatballWiki we use only CamelCase concept names; WikiPedia uses FreeLinks.
- If a wiki forms a language of concepts, how do you handle overlaps between wikis? On MeatballWiki, we provide an InterMap, allowing links to concepts in other wikis to be made, albeit with some excess verbosity, e.g. WikiPedia:Pattern. Other approaches include SisterSites and NearLinks.
- How do you handle overlaps between different subject areas in a single wiki — if the same name may naturally refer to different concepts in different contexts? How can you use common concept names — like "Talk" — to refer to different pages given different starting points? This subject is also known as namespaces, and is tackled on different wikis by means as varied as naming conventions, SubPages, or a LatticeSpace.
- Can you extend the "organic" concept to organic growth and division of wikis? Pushing the ideas of SisterSites and NearLinks further is a hot topic for some at the moment.
The community is formed around, and built on, pervasive PeerReview.
Everything the community (not the audience) does can be found via a central, pervasive PeerReview system. This serves as the hub of the community. The PeerReview system can be accessed via a single concept, RecentChanges. This concept is the part of a wiki in the greatest tension with the first principle, because it is important, yet allowing it to be edited can damage PeerReview. This can be rationalized by claiming that RecentChanges should not be used by TheAudience, only the community; hence, it is not important that it be fully editable.
(Note that the community can only be observed via its interactions with the open, organic, dynamic structure provided by the first two principles.)
This principle also leads to more interesting ideas.
- On small wikis, each RecentChanges essentially corresponds one-for-one with a community. As the community grows, this simplistic approach does not appear to scale: see CommunityMayNotScale.
- Large wikis typically handle this by providing increasingly-powerful filtration tools: see FilteredRecentChanges.
- Simply providing individuals with the capacity to filter RecentChanges may not map well to healthy human communal structures. An argument can be made that the sub-communities in a large wiki should, again, be formed around, and built on, pervasive PeerReview: see PeerGroups.
- A community may not be focussed on a single wiki. In this case, a communal ChangeAggregator may supplant the simpler RecentChanges system as the focus of the community. Applying the "organic" principle to this extra-wiki growth is another interesting area of research.
What is a wiki not?
A wiki is not necessarily:
- A website.
- Tradition implies it; however, there seems to be no reason why the wiki concept cannot embrace other media.
- If TheAudience can reliably be assumed to be extremely technically savvy, the wiki can still be open without being simple. A wiki about vi may be editable solely by vi, for instance — hardly the paragon of simplicity.
- An artists' wiki could be built primarily from images, provided it is open, organic and observable. Imagine something like WikiPedia:Myst, with the inter-page links being visual in nature, and the referencing system being perhaps location-based. (See PictorialWiki and AuralWiki.)
- Tradition, again, implies it; however, making your website searchable is best practice in the Web medium generally, and this has nothing to do with "wiki" per se.
- The two-way web.
- The two-way web is the two-way web. Wikis are a particular simple expression that fit a particular value set, and it is a subset of the two-way web. Making your content management system "more wiki" by allowing certain fields to be editable doesn't make any sense, and it is simply buzzworditis.
- A community.
- A wiki may not have a community. However, if it did, or if it later gained one, it would be observable.
The Wiki Way
Many ideas of how a wiki community "should" be can also be tied to the three big principles. These ideas are not unique to wikis, nor are they the only way a wiki community can behave, but they are a form of "the wiki way".
- The community should WelcomeNewcomers, and AssumeGoodFaith.
- The community should grow (and shrink) organically, with the ebb and flow of interest.
- The community should moderate itself through SoftSecurity, and ensure an OpenProcess in all decisions.
See WhatIsaWikiOldText for older discussions of what a wiki is, providing useful alternative presentations of the term 'wiki', as well as showing how thinking has progressed at MeatballWiki.
Three Big Principles
I think one can boil down the Big 4 at the top of this page to three Big Principles. [Ed: big three now expanded + at top of page] I now open the concept up for PeerReview by my audience ;) -- ChrisPurcell
I believe "WikiTechnology" is a term that can only be defined based on "WhatIsaWiki": it is technology directed at achieving the properties of a wiki. However, it does not define "a wiki".
The Big Three properties of a wiki can be used to found a taxonomy of WikiResearch. That may or may not be the best basis (and, as with most taxonomies, you'd better realize it's a lattice structure not a tree). It's an approach we could pursue on MB if that appeals. -- ChrisPurcell
I've nabbed three terms off Wiki:WikiDesignPrinciples that most closely match with these three terms — Open, Organic and Observable. Better terms would be appreciated. I like starting a topic off simple hooks. -- ChrisPurcell
- On this level of abstraction, I would add that wiki is a Process, not just a system in a static state. Another try on a single sentence definition: Wiki is a relatively open, observable process growing contributors and content into an organic, living system. -- HelmutLeitner
I've bulked out my initial text and moved it to the top of the page. Nice point about it being a process; I've attempted to make that point under "organic", as I don't feel the two can be usefully separated. -- ChrisPurcell
Thank you Chris for revitalizing the topic. I reformulated the intro in Wiki:EprimeLanguage / Google:Eprime and added some criteria. -- FridemarPache
- Thank you Fridemar. I've just renamed "selfstabilizing" back to "observable", as those three terms have much more symmetry. It's great that someone has finally come along and interacted with my text (especially the arrogant bits, which I left in as a kind of low-hanging fruit to tempt people to do so). Do you think these terms adequately sum up 'wiki' to you? -- ChrisPurcell
Chris, I hope the topic WhatIsaWiki will remain an ongoing conversation, with no final "cast in iron" result, but a source of inspiration and motivation to improve collectively this wonderful "phenomenon", we all love so deeply. By the way, after studying the many meanings of "observe", I have no problems with your renaming and other edits, but would like to see many more people to contribute instead of burdening the topic on the shoulders of say, 2-3 people. Happily now we can see ConceptMaps as (nearly) a Wiki. Together with Nathaniel, we try to eliminate some deficiencies (like Recent Changes, easy Link Handling in the Cmappers Forum). -- FridemarPache